Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Spiritual Self-Reliance: Understanding Scriptural Stories

For the last three weeks, we have been looking really closely at passages that talk about becoming like Jesus: the Beatitudes and Paul's treatise on charity in 1 Corinthians 13. Last Sunday, we talked about another way to study the scriptures to become more self-reliant - stepping back and reading to understand the stories being told, rather than proof texting verse-by-verse and word-by-word.

I started by telling the students that it's important not just to understand doctrine deeply and consider new ways to gain meaning from verses and statements in the scriptures but also to be open to new lessons that can touch them as they keep an open mind and not assume they understand the stories in our scriptures, just because they have read them and been told what they mean. I also explained how important it is to understand the themes, settings, the people involved, their back stories and personalities, the interpersonal dynamics, etc. In other words, I told them that there is a lot that can be gained by reading scriptures the same way they would read an assigned book in an English Lit class.

To show them what I meant, we looked at four stories in the scriptures: one from the Book of Mormon and three from the New Testament:

1) 1 Nephi 15 tells about Nephi returning from the mountain where he received his own vision of his father's vision. I asked everyone how Lehi and Nephi had received their understanding of the Tree of Life and people's actions with regard to it, and one of the students said Lehi had a "dream-vision". (I was happy to hear it worded that way, since that is a good description of how Lehi explained it.) Nephi reported having a "vision" - but everyone agreed that we don't know exactly what that meant and that it might have been the same type of "dream-vision" Lehi described. We then read verses 1-10 and talked about what they appear to say about the family dynamics that can help us understand the story better.

Verses 1-3 say that Nephi saw his brothers arguing about what Lehi had told them and that Nephi's immediate reaction was to mention that they were hard-hearted and wouldn't ask God for themselves. I pointed out that we always zero in on Laman and Lemuel, but that Sam was a brother, too, and there is nothing that says he wasn't arguing about it just like Laman and Lemuel. I also pointed out that Sam hadn't immediately accepted Lehi's first vision - that he only accepted it after Nephi did. It was only after Nephi's immediate judgment of his brothers that he actually talked with them, which means his interaction was colored by how he already viewed them.

Verse 5 says, "I was overcome because of my afflictions, for I considered that mine afflictions were great above all." I raised my eyebrows a bit, grinned and said, "Really?! Great above all?! Daddy's favorite son had it worse than anyone else - by implication in the history of the world?! Over-dramatic a bit?!" They got the point. I told them that I love Nephi, especially since we have 2 Nephi 4 (Nephi's Psalm), but that he comes across as a spoiled youngest child in some places in the account.

In verse 7, they tell Nephi that they don't understand what Lehi taught, and Nephi's immediate reaction in verse 8 ("Have ye inquired of the Lord?") shows that he was being influenced by his pre-existing view of them.

Verse 9 is their response: "We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us." I mentioned the reference in Sacrament Meeting by the returned missionary who spoke about the 9-year-old girl he taught who had an incredible vision before finding and approaching them [and it really was an amazing experience], and I told them that I was nearly 50 years old and had never had an experience like that - that I have never had that type of "dream-vision". I told them that if someone asked me if I had prayed for a similar dream-vision, my response might be translated accurately as, "I have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto me."

In verse 10, Nephi rips into his brothers, harshly, and tells them that they don't get dream-visions because they are wicked.

I then recapped the inner-family dynamics of a younger, favored brother giving away all their possessions and then killing a community leader to get a history book, as well as preaching at them constantly. I asked one of the young men in the class how he would feel if his younger brother (who also is in the class) acted that way to him - and he smiled and nodded, showing he understood. I asked them how things might have been different if Nephi's immediate response (then and in previous situations) would have been, "I understand. Let's sit down and talk about it" - delivered with a loving smile. He explained it to them, but only after ripping into them first.

At that point, one of the students said, "You mean the Book of Mormon is a record of a dysfunctional family?" - and I grinned, nodded and told him I hadn't ever phrased it exactly like that but that I would say that - and that I can't see how anyone could read the record and not describe the family as highly-dysfunctional.

2) We then talked about Judas Iscariot. I told them that I was going to share an alternative reading of his story I heard in a Divinity School class years ago that stuck with me - not as something they have to believe as accurate, but simply as an example of how the same stories can be read and understood differently.

I asked them how we view Judas, and they all agreed that he is seen as the ultimate traitor - so much so that Christians have called traitors "Judases" ever since then. I asked them what Judas did in Jesus' group - what his main responsibility was. Some of them knew he was the treasurer - that he managed the money. We talked about why Jesus would need a treasurer, and they hadn't thought about that in-depth. I described what it takes for an itinerant preacher to travel with an entourage and explained that it could happen only if someone provided the money necessary for their needs. James and John were successful fishermen, and there were other professionals who probably had available resources. Perhaps Lazarus, as a dear friend, helped. We don't know, but they obviously needed someone to take care of the money and keep the books - or even solicit donations from followers, which was and still is common. (It's the same reason we need financial clerks in the Church today.)

We talked about how Jesus seems to have "forced the issue" the final week of his life: riding into Jerusalem on a donkey in a way that appeared to mock how the Roman leaders traveled, clearing the temple, etc. I then explained that some people believe Jesus wasn't accusing anyone during the Last Supper of being a traitor, but rather was telling them that one of them would have to betray him to cause his arrest. That could have been because he knew he was innocent and the trial would be a chance to enlarge his exposure in Jerusalem, or it could have been because his death had been prophesied to occur during the Passover, so he had to make it happen more quickly than the Jewish and Roman leadership would have moved on their own. Thus, perhaps Judas wasn't a traitor; perhaps, being known as the treasurer, he was the one to whom the Jewish leadership would be most inclined to listen - and to provide a payment that Judas thought would add to their cause once Jesus was released.

The detail that leads some people to believe this interpretation is Judas' reaction when he realized that Jesus was going to be killed. He didn't run off with the money, as a hard-hearted traitor generally would; rather, he killed himself. Some people see that as a guilty conscience, but others see it as a heart-broken realization that what he thought would happen (an arrest, trial and release) wasn't going to happen - that his role had led to his leader (master, Lord, etc.) being killed.

3) The next situation we discussed was Peter denying Jesus on the night of his arrest. I mentioned Elder Holland's discussion in General Conference a few years ago of this different view and then talked about it in detail. Like the story of Judas, we discussed how it would change the generally accepted interpretation if Jesus wasn't accusing Peter of future denial but rather insisting that he exercise the self-control to stay alive and not get caught up in the arrest and subsequent crucifixion.

I "acted out" the anguish he might have felt as he progressively fought back his desire to defend Jesus each time he was asked (and had to curse the final time to get through it), and how that would have caused him to "weep bitterly" (with pain and relief) when the rooster crowed and he realized it was over - that he wouldn't have to deny Jesus again.

If Jesus' original statement wasn't a sad, "You are going to be so weak that you deny me three times tonight," but rather a pleading, "You have to fight your natural inclination to fight to protect me, since you can't be taken, also," it changes the situation dramatically - and is much more in line with Peter's impetuous, brave, impulsive, passionate nature than the coward he usually is portrayed to be in this story.

4) We ended with Peter walking on the water, and I simply pointed out that it is illogical to criticize Peter for lacking faith in that situation. I said, "Dude jumped out of a boat and started walking on water!" That got some chuckles, but they got the point. I then used the story to illustrate that Peter was walking toward Jesus, but he kept reaching out even as he realized his situation and started to sink. I talked about how that story is one of the best summaries of the entire Plan of Salvation I have ever read - and I would rather read it that way than in order to criticize Peter.

I finished the lesson by sharing the story of my parents' mission and how, sometimes, God really can make it possible to do the impossible. For a description of that mission, read the following post: "Exercising Faith and Seeing the Hand of God".


Amy said...

Ray, I've never commented on your blog before, though I'm a faithful reader! I love your approach to the gospel, and I have especially loved your posts about your Sunday School lessons! I hope my kids have teachers like you when they get to be of age.

As for this post, I really appreciate this approach to the scriptures. It wasn't until I was in my 30's (OK, I'm still in my 30's, but getting ever closer to 40!) that I learned how to do what you describe, and what a difference it has made in my lscripture study, and in my life. Thanks for sharing your excellent thoughts!

Papa D said...

Thank you, Amy. I really appreciate that.